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Not All Bugs Are Pests

May 24, 2008

Soldier Beetle

When controlling pests in your yard, take the path of least toxicity. Not all bugs are harmful or cause damage to the plants in your garden. Beneficial insects, like the ones mentioned below, actually prey on the pests you are trying to get rid of. Pesticides, whether organic or synthetic, can be toxic to humans, beneficial insects, the pests they eat, and other predators like birds, frogs, fish, and cats to name a few.

I recently had aphids all over my Euphorbias earlier this spring. At first, I pinched them between my fingers every morning before work. Over the next couple of weeks, the colonies seemed to double . . . then triple. I reluctantly pruned the chartruese brachts (flowers) in hopes of bringing the population under control. Much to my displeasure, the colonies started migrating to the neighboring Euphorbias. I finally decided to selectively spray the brachts that were about to be smothered by aphids. Then one morning, I discovered the aphids had been replaced with a dozen Soldier Beetles.

Hierarchy of Pest Control

I’ll be honest, taking the path of least toxicity takes patience, a basic understanding of your garden, and commitment to healthy practices. Creating a healthy, toxic-free yard benefits not only beneficial wildlife, but also your pets, your family, your pocket book, and the environment. I’m not a crazed environmentalist preaching for major life changes overnight. I speak from experience that going “toxic-free” is a process that you should take one day at a time. As you come across pests in your yard, start with the least-toxic method listed below.

  1. PREVENTION – use native plants, look for disease resistant varieties, annual vegetable crop rotation
  2. PHYSICAL – remove whatever pests are eating, hand picking, pruning, blast bugs with the hose, traps
  3. BIOLOGICAL – attract natural predators such as birds, beneficial insects, or even bats
  4. CHEMICAL – organic or synthetic pesticides (hopefully this article persuades you to take the least toxic path available)

The Good Bugs

I try to allow beneficial bugs to keep my yard’s pest population under control. In the long run, beneficial insects will be much more effective in controlling pests than pesticides. However, pests tend to arrive earlier in the garden before the beneficial insects do.

Beneficials and Their Prey

Before you take action, try to correctly identify the bug as a friend or foe. Don’t completely eradicate the pests in your yard either. Beneficial insects depend on any insect smaller than they are for food. Here’s a small sample of the “good guys” you might see in your yard and what they love to eat:

Assassin Bug by tchuanye

  • Assassin Bugs – prey on many insects
  • Damsel Bugs – aphids, leafhoppers, small catepillars
  • Ground Beetles – catepillars, cutworms, soil-dwelling maggots and grubs, slugs and snails
  • Lacewings – Larvae feed on aphids, leafhoppers, mealybugs, mites, psyllids, thrips, whiteflies
  • Ladybugs – Adults and larvae feed on aphids, mealybugs, and eggs of many insects
  • Parasitic Nematodes – Effective against several hundred different insects
  • Soldier Beetles – Adults prey on aphids and other soft-bodied insects.
  • >>Pictures of Common Beneficials

Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects

Rather than buy beneficial bugs at your local nurseries, attract them to your yard naturally by providing water, shelter, and alternative foods. When there are no bugs to eat, beneficials feed on pollen and nectar from flowers. Many plants that attract beneficial wildlife have beautiful, long-blooming flowers. Once your yard is known as an inviting, delectable habitat, beneficials will return every year to feed on the pollen of your flowers and the pests that feed on your plants.

Moonbeam Coreopsis by Carl E Lewis

  • ERIOGONUM (Buckwheat)
  • TRIFOLIUM (Clovers)
  • CORIANDRUM sativum (Coriander)
  • AGROSTEMMA githago (Corn cockle)
  • COSMOS bipinnatus (Cosmos)
  • ANETHUM graveolens (Dill)
  • FOENICULUM vulgare (Fennel)
  • ACHILLEA (Yarrow)
  • TANACETUM vulgare (Tansy)
  • BRASSICA (Mustard)
  • LOBULARIA maritima (Sweet alyssum)

Least-Toxic Chemical Controls

Sometimes hand-picking, water blasting, beer trapping, and beneficial insects are just not enough to keep pests under control. Pesticide is a broad category that includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other chemicals that prevent or eliminate damage caused by a pest. Save them as a last resort because most of these products DO NOT discriminate the good bugs from the bad bugs. Below is a brief description of the most common least-toxic products used. >>More information on Controlling Pests Organically

  • Horticulture Oils – highly refined petroleum oils used to smother aphids, mealy bugs, mites, scales, thrips and whiteflies
  • Insecticidal Soap – highly refined liquid soaps to control aphids, spider mites, scale, whiteflies and other soft-bodied insects. (NOT DETERGENT but potassium salt of fatty acids)
  • Neem Oil – derived from a tropical tree to repel pests and interrupt growth cycles, and kills larvae. Effective use on aphids, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, leaf miners, mealybugs, root weavils, and more.
  • Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) – a bacteria used to control primarily caterpillar larvae.

Things To Consider

  • Consult a local nursery when buying products
  • Organic DOES NOT mean pesticide-free
  • Neither “organic” nor “synthetic” pesticides are completely safe
  • Read labels before applying
  • Dispose of chemicals responsibly

What are some of the least-toxic methods you use to control pests in your yard?

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